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Thursday, October 31, 2013

31 DAYS OF HORROR 2013-Day 31: PSYCHO (1960)


WARNING: this post assumes the reader has seen PSYCHO and therefore it contains spoilers. If you have not seen PSYCHO, where the fuck have you been for the last five decades? Living under a rock in the tiny republic of Togo? See it immediately, damn you!

Alfred Hitchcock’s landmark film, PSYCHO, one of the all-time classics of horror and suspense, and the film that can arguably be considered the granddaddy of the “slasher” genre. Three years ago, when I informed my mom that it had been a half-century since the film came out, she couldn’t believe it had been so long since she’d seen it during its original run, and she once again regaled me with the tale of how after seeing that movie, she refused to shower in the house unless another person was around.

To me, it’s hard to believe there was ever a time when PSYCHO wasn’t around. I’m forty-eight years old and during my lifetime PSYCHO has gone on to become a part of world cinema’s DNA and has been a point of reference and jokes more times than I can possibly count, such was its impact. Yet somehow there are still people out there who have managed to reach adulthood without having seen it, and one of those people was She Who Cannot Be Named, an ex-girlfriend from three years ago. Having devoted much of her growing-up years to being a diligent student (unlike me, who loathed virtually every moment of my organized schooling), she has missed innumerable classic (and not-so-classic) films that you or I would take it as a given that the average person would have experienced, so you can imagine how I was champing at the bit to fill her head with a literal cornucopia of cinema from all genres and decades. With that goal in mind, when I heard that Manhattan’s Film Forum was running a screening of PSYCHO in honor of its golden anniversary, I fairly leapt at the chance to finally see it projected and haul She Who Cannot Be Named along.

Once I’d procured tickets, I made sure to advise She Who Cannot Be Named about not letting anyone spoil any of the film’s particulars for her, and things were going well in that department until one of her grad school courses ran footage from the sequence where Norman sinks Marian Crane’s car into the marsh behind the Bates Motel. When the girlfriend told me that she’d seen that bit, I was a little annoyed but not as much as I could have been because when taken out of context that scene reveals nothing. Also, when the segment was about to be discussed in class, one of her classmates was kind enough to stand up and announce to the class that out of kindness to those who had never seen PSYCHO, they should keep mum on the details of the story. That was very gentlemanly of him, but I soon reached a state of apoplexy when She Who Cannot Be Named told me that right after that guy’s consideration of the few PSYCHO newbies in the class, some galloping asshat stated flat-out that Norman was the killer. When she told me that during our pre-screening dinner, I nearly hit the roof.

Undaunted, we made our way to the Film Forum and met up with my pal Suzi. As the girls hit the ladies’ room, I stood up and asked the audience if there was anyone in attendance that had not yet seen the film, and when a few hands shot ceilingward, I asked the audience not to give anything away. They all nodded in knowing agreement, and when the girls got back I settled in and absorbed PSYCHO on the (relatively) big screen for the first time. (I have seen the film many, many times since the late 1970’s and know it inside and out, but I was genuinely excited to see it projected and with an eager audience.)

If you’ve read this far despite the spoiler warning, then it’s safe to assume that you’ve already seen the movie, so I won’t bother to recount the plot. Instead, I’ll just make some observations.
  • PSYCHO hit the screen barely three years after the real-life horrors discovered at the Wisconsin home of one Ed Gein, so that brain-meltingly awful event was still fresh in the shocked and disbelieving minds of the American public, thus lending the film an extra visceral mule kick to the guts.
Ed Gein, the real-life inspiration for Norman Bates (among others), being led to the crime lab.

For those not in the know (and making a very long, complex and downright fucking horrible story short), Ed Gein was the textbook example of the town "quiet soul" that everyone knew and thought was a little odd but harmless, only to have it revealed that he was not only bullmoose crazy, but also capable of acts of such outright stomach-churning blackness that even hardened homicide detectives found his acts literally nauseating. Among other elements lifted from the Gein case for author Robert Bloch's source novel of PSYCHO can be found a grown man's very serious mother issues, questionable hobbies and handicrafts, and a marked gender-confusion, so the moviegoing audience no doubt remembered those details as they watched Hitchcock's creepy low-budget flick unspool across the nation.
  • The sheer genius of letting us get to know and care about Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) only to kill her off about a third of the way through the narrative is still staggering and must have been a real kick in the head to the 1960 audience.
And think about this: more than fifty years later, Marion Crane is still the most famous murder victim in screen history.
  • Though he's creepy from the moment when we meet him, Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) is so awkward and childlike, we find it easy to believe he's not the killer.
Instead it seems like he's covering for his crazy mother, so the big reveal in the fruit cellar leaves one gobsmacked, a feeling that's compounded when Norman's pathology is outlined in detail during the epilogue.
  • My favorite scary moment in the film is when Arbogast (Martin Balsam) is murdered on the stairway while snooping at the Bates house.
The shower sequence is rightly hailed as a classic, but there's something so BANG! about when Arbogast is slashed across the face and sent tumbling off-balance, backwards, down the stairs, arms flailing, only to have "Mrs. Bates" land atop him and go to work with that chef's knife. Marion was naked and in a shower, so she had pretty much no chance to defend herself, but Arbogast might have had a chance had he not been expecting to be able to nose about in the home of a presumed invalid, so the audience really feels it when he meets his grim fate. When that moment came, I could have sworn my girlfriend jumped out of her skin.
  • The legacy of PSYCHO is vast and the funny thing is that its sequels are actually pretty good, unlike the majority of proper slasher flick sequels. Especially of interest are PSYCHO II (1983), which chronicles what happens when Norman is released after having spent twenty-two years in a mental institution, and PSYCHO IV: THE BEGINNING, in which Norman relates his disturbing origin story. Both are well worth checking out.
  • In recent years a number of classic films containing creepy and visceral material have been given ratings for their current releases on DVD, and PSYCHO has been slapped with an "R." The same rating has been applied to ROSEMARY'S BABY (1968) and considering the admittedly arbitrary criteria by which the MPAA determines what does or does not deserve a "restricted" label, I find it baffling that both films now bear that distinction. There's more "adult" material in ROSEMARY'S BABY, but nothing that would not garner a PG-13 were it to come out today, and other than the two murders, neither of which is gory, there is no content in PSYCHO that deserves any rating harder than a PG. And I'm willing to bet that the ratings on the DVDs serve no purpose anyway, because both are acknowledged classics and have both been run on non-cable television for ages in versions that were damned near uncut, so I very much doubt that any garden variety ten-year-old would be denied their purchase.
And with that I urge you to watch PSYCHO again, simply to be reminded of how they just don't make 'em like they used to.
Poster from the 1960 theatrical release.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

31 DAYS OF HORROR 2013-Day 30: FRANKENSTEIN ISLAND (1981)


No, you are not going mad. That's actually Frankenstein's monster versus a jungle girl from outer space.

When four competitors in a balloon race find themselves stranded on a mysterious island with their dog, they encounter a bizarre assortment of brainwashed zombie-men in dark shirts and cool shades, a drunk sailor who continuously laughs for no apparent reason, a shrieking disembodied vision of Dr. Frankenstein (John Carradine in a piece of footage presumably from an unreleased movie), the requisite mad science, a painful arm-paralyzing effect that happens whenever anyone mentions a location other than the island, a seemingly insane castaway (Cameron Mitchell) who's imprisoned in a cage and somehow convinced he was the inspiration for the narrator of Poe's "The Raven," the great grand-daughter of Dr. Frankenstein who is married to a Van Helsing (talk about stacking the deck), a tribe of jungle girls who are descended from space aliens, and of course the Frankenstein monster himself. If all of the information imparted in the preceding run-on sentence seems confusing, just try sitting through and making sense of the movie itself! (Yeah, good luck with that.)

FRANKENSTEIN ISLAND was the final film from schlockmeister Jerry Warren, the writer/director who also gave the screen THE INCREDIBLE PETRIFIED WORLD (1957) CURSE OF THE STONE HAND (1964), and the garbage classic THE WILD WORLD OF BATWOMAN (1966), and his career could not possibly have had a more memorably-schlocky coda. To describe the film as a confused mishmash is a colossal understatement, as absolutely nothing in the story makes even a lick of sense. It features more cross-genre gene-splicing than Ed Wood's PLAN NINE FROM OUTER SPACE (1959) while being almost as gloriously incompetent as that black-and-white landmark of bad cinema, and it's a very interesting throwback because it looks and feels just like JESSE JAMES MEETS FRANKENSTEIN'S DAUGHTER and other films twenty years (or so) its senior. 

John Carradine's disembodied head, inexplicably shrieking "THE POWER! THE POWER!!!" while deep in the caves beneath the island. (It's kinda/sorta explained but I swear it made no sense to me.) 

There's also a distinct flavor to all of it that evokes a horror movie a seven-year-old would have made if they had the resources at their disposal. It's difficult to cite a single element that stands out as the most ridiculous example of "kid logic" in this un-scary world-class jaw-dropper, but if I had to make that call I'd go with the concept of a tribe of jungle girls clad in leopard print bikinis who are apparently the descendants of space aliens. Any excuse to provide a movie with female flesh is okay by me and jungle girls are one of my favorite things ever, but the added  aspect of having this film's jungle girls be aliens for no real narrative reason is a stroke of twisted genius, and I wish I'd thought of it first.

The cast is nothing to write home about, despite the presence of John Carradine (in stock footage only) and Cameron Mitchell, though it is worth noting that Sheila Von Frankenstein-Van Helsing (Oy, what a name!!!) is played by none other than Katherine Victor, who will forever be infamous to bad movie aficionados as the title character in THE WILD WORLD OF BATWOMAN, a movie so bad as to actually be mesmerizing. In FRANKENSTEIN ISLAND she's just shy of sixty, and you have to admire her moxie for still being able to get away with rocking a rack-tastic outfit.

Katherine Victor, rocking a look that screams "Bea Arthur as envisioned by Russ Meyer."

Katherine Victor as seen in the infamous THE WILD WORLD OF BATWOMAN (1966). Was Victor the most fashion-challenged actress in trash cinema history?

As previously stated, the film makes zero sense on just about every level, so by the time the crazed climax happens, the audience has long been pummeled into submission by all the rampaging non-sensicality, so when the zombie dudes and the Frankenstein monster (who looks a hell of a lot like Phil Hartman's fondly-remembered take on the character from his SNL days) engage the balloon castaways and the outer space jungle girls in final combat nothing seems any more idiotic than anything else that unfolds during the final reel. Replete with poorly-choreographed karate, flailing jungle girls, broken lab equipment, a Halloween devil's pitchfork that inexplicably turns one of the outer space jungle girls into an outer space jungle girl vampire, an ultra-bogus disintegrator gun, a tarantula and a garter snake deployed as offensive weapons (to no great effect), a living brain in a glass bubble, and even more, the zero-budget apocalyptic finale must be seen to be disbelieved.

It's balls-out nonsensical action as scientists, ballooning enthusiasts, zombies, jungle girls from outer space, and Frankenstein engage in blistering combat!

Though not scary in the least and very much PG-rated, I cannot recommend FRANKENSTEIN ISLAND enough. It's one of those rare movies that wallows shamelessly in the fact that it's completely and utterly out of its mind and simply does not give a fuck, and in this age of bland, lifeless movies by committee, Jerry Warren's swan song stands as a monument to one man's singular, demented artistic vision. Believe me when I tell you that you've never seen anything like it, and also take my advice and have plenty of beer and other questionable "party favors" close at hand when watching it with like-minded friends and loved ones. Concrete proof that a movie doesn't have to be coherent to be entertaining as a motherfucker, FRANKENSTEIN ISLAND is a unique triumph. Someday I intend to host a drunken screening of both THE WILD WORLD OF BATWOMAN and FRANKENSTEIN ISLAND, just to see if an audience's collective mind can withstand such an assault of pure, unadulterated, back-to-back mind-rot.

An ad from the original theatrical release.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

31 DAYS OF HORROR 2013-Day 29: TROLL 2 (1990)



Have you ever seen a movie so incredibly, jaw-droppingly bad that it gave you what I like to call a "what the fuck?!!?" moment? I hadn't seen one in quite some time, but when I sat through TROLL 2 I was simply amazed by its complete and utter wretchedness. It's totally amateurish in every way but unlike the majority of bad Hollywood "product" movies, TROLL 2 is entertaining as hell and definitely worth wasting your time on.

Having absolutely nothing to do with TROLL (1986), the story, such as it is, tells the "scary" tale of a family of total non-actors who journey to the rural town of "Nilbog" (oh, puh-leeze!) and discover the place to be a nest of supremely bogus-looking goblins played by a bunch of dwarves in tatty costumes designed by Laura Gemser. Yes, dear Vaulties, the very same Laura Gemser who starred in such classics of softcore cinema as BLACK EMANUELLE (1975), EMANUELLE ON TABOO ISLAND (1976), EMANUELLE AND THE LAST CANNIBALS (1977), EMANUELLE AND THE WHITE SLAVE TRADE (1978), UNLEASHED PERVERSIONS OF EMANUELLE (1983), and that favorite of bad sword & sorcery fans everywhere, ATOR, THE FIGHTING EAGLE (1982).

Laura Gemser: skin-flick mainstay and TROLL 2's special effects costume designer. No, seriously!

The family and other assorted characters (translation: "goblin fodder") must stay one step ahead of the evil goblins who, in a bizarre (and pointless) twist, are vegetarians who use a magic green goo to transform their prey into plants before they chow down on them; in one memorable instance a nerdy teen is turned into a tree and takes root on a clay pot exactly like what you'd find at a garden supply shop, only to meet his fate at the hands of the chain saw-wielding goblin queen — a character named Creedence Leonore Gielgud — who's actually a witch from Stonehenge or something.

The incredible Deborah Reed as scenery-devouring goblin queen Creedence Leonore Gielgud.

No joke, Creedence is one of the most over-the-top flagrantly poorly-acted characters in film history, and I love her. Just how bad is actress Deborah Reed in essaying this part? Let's put it this way: imagine the witch at a local junior high's Halloween haunted house that's been set up in the school's basketball court, as played by some baked hippie chick with no previous acting experience that they'd conscripted from off the street and told to go completely apeshit with her conception of "scary," and you'll only scratch the surface of the thespic anti-wonders to be had here. There's even a truly mind-boggling bit in which Creedence seduces one of a group of annoying and horny teenage boys by materializing from out of the TV the idiot was watching and manifesting as a sexy, lingerie-clad spank fantasy made flesh, complete with black stockings and an ear of corn.

"Gosh, Mrs. Robinson! Whatcha gonna do with that ear of corn?"

The two thrash about on a couch as they French through the ear of corn (?), their passion becoming so hot that the scene explodes in a shower of popcorn.

The most ludicrous seduction scene in cinema history? You decide!

No, really! I swear on my Devo albums that I'm not making up any of this! And I've neglected to mention that the boring and grossly untalented family who serve as the protagonists in this mess have a son who keeps receiving lore about goblins and advice on how to deal with them from his dead grandpa, the chief nugget of wisdom being not to eat any food proffered by the townsfolk of Nilbog (*snicker*). So when the family sits down to feast on an assortment of goodies that look like somebody overdid it with the green food dye and Play-Doh, the kid has to come up with a way to stop his famished family from eating and save them from turning into plants, so on the spot he settles on whipping it out and giving their repast a major golden shower (which we thankfully don't actually see transpire).

"How about a little butter for that corn, Sis?"

That act of micturational martyrdom results in what could be the film's signature quote, coming from the irate dad: "You can't piss on hospitality! I won't allow it!!!"

Those are just some of the horrendously-acted highlights in the film, and after seeing it I did a little research and was astounded (but not really all that surprised) to discover that TROLL 2 has a huge and steadily growing cult following as the "greatest bad movie ever made." That's a pretty lofty anti-accolade and I'm not sure what film would really deserve that title, but TROLL 2 is definitely among the curdled cream of the bad movie crop and is head-and-shoulders more entertaining than just about any other genuinely bad film you can name. There's even a documentary about it entitled BEST WORST MOVIE, directed by Michael Stephenson, the former child actor who so memorably whipped it out and let fly all over the family's meal in the film, and I highly recommend it. As truly awful movies go, TROLL 2 should definitely be experienced by one and all, and you just have to give it up for any movie entitled TROLL 2 that features not even one troll in its entire running time.

The stunning handiwork of former-Emanuelle Laura Gemser.

Monday, October 28, 2013

31 DAYS OF HORROR 2013-Day 28: EXORCIST II: THE HERETIC (1977)


A portent of impending scares, or an invitation to yucks? You decide!

One of the universe's greatest truisms is that whenever anything is successful, a sequel is inevitable, so when William Friedkin's adaptation of William Peter Blatty's THE EXORCIST (1973) raked in the samoleons at the box office (over 66 mil in early-1970's dollars, and that ain't hay!) it was only a matter of time until a followup graced the screen. But any sequel to THE EXORCIST would have been a daunting task; how to follow an instant classic that shattered onscreen taboos regarding language, religious improprieties (Ouch! That crucifix!), and truly creative cussing while maintaining the high standard of quality set by the original would have proved daunting to any writer or director, and as per the nature of sequels one would assume that the general public would have been expecting more of the same, perhaps with the blasphemous ante being cranked up a notch or two. So what to do in order to meet the public's expectations and make an assload of box office at the same time?

The answer to that question cannot be found in 1977's EXORCIST II: THE HERETIC, a literally unholy mess of a film whose reputation as possibly the single worst sequel in major motion picture history seems pretty much set in stone.

Helmed by world-class oddball director John Boorman, the guy who gave us the jaw-dropping Sean Connery vehicle ZARDOZ (1974), EXORCIST II: THE HERETIC unwisely chooses to focus on the possibility that Reagan McNeal (Linda Blair, reprising the role that made her famous) may still harbor memories of the excruciating details of her exorcism some three years prior to the events of this film. Sent by the Vatican to dig up all the necessary dirt while investigating the death of the priest who performed Reagan's excorcism — Father Merrin (Max Von Sydow, reprising his role as a much younger version of his character in the original film) — Father Philip Lamont (Richard Burton, looking and acting like he's in the midst of a week-long bender) journeys to Manhattan where a high school-aged Reagan lives and volunteers at a bizarro clinic that helps the mentally ill/challenged. The place is run by Dr. Tuskin (Louise Fletcher, here pulling a total one-eighty from her Oscar-winning role as Nurse Ratched in ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO'S NEST), who breaks out this trippy-looking strobe light and bio-feedback headsets that looked like something you'd have found in a head shop at the time and uses it to hypnotize Reagan into remembering her forgotten experience of demonic possession. That turns out to be a bad idea because the second Reagan's fully under she starts sounding like Lucille Ball during her autumn years, her face gets all evil and fucked-up-looking, and the demon identifies itself as Pazuzu, a malevolent ancient Assyrian wind spirit and "one of the lords of the air."

Whoa, dude! Trippy! But not scary.

As of that point the film nosedives into a nigh-incomprehensible mess of questioned faith, misguided attempts at psychedelia, bullshit psychobabble, flashabcks to Father Merrin's first exorcism, all manner of bizarre mystic visions and mumbo-jumbo, accented with Linda Blair performing in an utterly awful chorus line production of "Lullaby of Broadway," and the unforgettable sight of James Earl Jones as an African holy man in a ridiculous locust costume. It all culminates in a confusing fistfight between Father Lamont and Pazuzu in the form of Reagan's evil twin, a bout settled when the good Reagan arrives and fends off a swarm of demonically-controlled locusts by imitating the movements made by Jones' character during his youth as he used a bull-roarer to drive the evil bugs from his village, all while father Lamont literally tears out Pazuzu's heart.

Now this is what the audience craved to see: Linda Blair battling locusts.

A lot more crazy shit happens, and if any of this sounds coherent, let me assure you that it isn't. When I first saw EXORCIST II: THE HERETIC during its network television premiere — the night after THE EXORCIST, so the edited-for-TV version of that was fresh in my mind — I watched it with my mom, and the two of us nearly laughed ourselves to death. To this day we can still crack each other up with random quotes from the film ("Pazuzu will help me find Kokumo!!!"), and while it is an unmitigated turd storm, I must confess to finding it entertaining as hell, and loaded to the gills with visuals that bring to mind Alejandro Jodorowsky in his more accessible moments. Boorman's visual imagination was given free reign, and the film is replete with beautiful and bizarre imagery and gorgeous cinematography. Too bad there wasn't a script good enough to properly complement Boorman's vision.

Perhaps the saddest thing about EXORCIST II: THE HERETIC is that when it is carefully examined, there are the building blocks for what could have been a genuinely good and scary film that could have used the original flick as a starting point and really run with some of the story's themes. My two major points on this are as follows:
  • The first thing they should have done was lose Reagan entirely; she was successfully rid of demonic influence at the end of the first story, and not much the worse for wear thanks to having psychologically blocked out the entire hellish experience. By bringing her back when her arc was clearly over and done with for audiences who demand more of the same — or at the behest of studio execs who can't think beyond the immediately familiar — , the film renders Father Merrin's heroic efforts and sacrifice, as well as Father Karras's, without meaning or impact, pissing all over the power of Catholicism that supposedly saved Reagan's soul. And when we find out that demons like Pazuzu run around possessing folks like Reagan because they are so pure and good that they have what amounts to superpowers, it throws a cheesy X-Men kind of vibe over the proceedings.
  • The film should have focused on Father Lamont's investigative efforts and his own crisis of faith in the face of the returned Pazuzu. (Who, by the way, was not identified in the original, but was implied to be the Devil himself; by having Pazuzu turn out to be pretty much just a badassed grasshopper, his terror level is considerably diminished.) Lamont's tracing of Kokumo, the kid long ago exorcised by Merrin, could have gone down many fascinating and potentially terrifying avenues, all of which could have been well served by Boorman's imagination. The interaction between the Christian, specifically Catholic, powers that be and their opposite numbers has fueled horror stories from day one, and it wouldn't have taken too much effort to have come up with a great Campbellish "hero's journey" for Lamont that would have seen him lose his faith only to have it restored in the aftermath of the throwdown with Pazuzu. The long-running Vertigo comics series HELLBLAZER pulled off many such stories as a matter of course, so there's really no excuse, especially when tons of money are thrown into such a project (yes, I know HELLBLAZER was bastardized up the ass for the awful CONSTANTINE movie, so I won't even go there).
So, yes, EXORCIST II: THE HERETIC is a spectacular misfire, but there's too much good material to be found amidst this cinematic dog's breakfast to fully write it off as one of the worst films ever made. I've certainly seen far worse, both from low-budget schlockmeisters like Al Adamson and from the major studios, and unlike many other bad films, at least EXORCIST II: THE HERETIC entertained the crap out of me, something I cannot say about would-be blockbusters like SKY CAPTAIN AND THE WORLD OF TOMORROW, PEARL HARBOR, or LIVE FREE OR DIE HARD. Give EXORCIST II: THE HERETIC a second chance, and this time while you're laughing take note of the cool shit it possesses (sorry) and grieve for could have been a glorious entry in the horror genre.

Poster for the original theatrical release.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

31 DAYS OF HORROR 2013-Day 27: THE BRAIN THAT WOULDN'T DIE (1962)


The things we do for love...

Sure, THE BRAIN THAT WOULDN'T DIE is a classic example of a bad movie, but what a fucking great bad movie it is! If you appreciate the sleazy in the same way I do, especially sleaze with a distinctly 1950's flavor, there's a lot to savor in this classic of epic bad taste. It's become something of a born-again cult classic since it was lampooned on MYSTERY SCIENCE THEATER 3000 twenty years ago and the treatment it got there was indeed hilarious, but I argue that the film should be experienced on its own merits. It's like the cinematic equivalent of a lurid, ultra-trashy pulp novel found in a filthy bus depot at Jesus o'clock in the morning, only with the added bonus of the horror angle thrown in alongside the lascivious content.

Dr. Bill Cortner (Jason Evers) is a brilliant but unorthodox surgeon who gets into an horrific car accident while out driving with his fiancee, Jan (Virginia Leith). Cortner survives relatively unscathed but Jan is decapitated, so Cortner bundles up her noggin and takes it home to his lab, where he promptly places Jan's severed head in a tray of life-giving fluids and hooks her up to some nifty wires and tubes. Aided by his malformed assistant (Leslie Daniels), the doctor keeps Jan's head alive — and she's somehow able to speak, despite intact vocal chords or lungs with which to produce breath — despite her frequent entreaties to be allowed to die, and in no time he hits the streets of the nearby inner city to find a new body for his love. So what if some innocent woman has to die so he can bring Jan back?

Jan in the pan.

And not just any female body will do for Cortner's sinister purpose. He cruises shady areas and strip joints, prowling for a stacked figure right out of the classic 1950's Jayne Mansfield mold, and he's quite thorough in his search. (It's beyond morally reprehensible, but I can see where's coming from.)

Dr. Cortner does some window shopping.

After striking out with a street pickup and two strippers (who get into a ludicrously gratuitous cat fight), Cortner sets his sights on a raven-haired lovely (Adele Lamont) who poses as a model for an Irving Klaw-style camera club, creepily worming his way into her trust by promising to fix her scarred visage with his miraculous plastic surgery skills. (She hides the scarring by draping her long hair over the left side of her face.) Desperate to look normal, the model accepts Cortner's offer and ends up drugged and bound for his basement operating table.

From girlie-shot model to unwilling replacement body for a severed head.

But while all of this is going on, Cortner's selfish obsession allows him to completely ignore Jan's growing hatred for her fiancee because he won't hear her pleas to be humanely put out of her unnatural misery. While Cortner's away prowling the street for nubile flesh, Jan plots vengeance while learning to telepathically communicate with the cobbled-together monstrosity that Cortner keeps locked up behind a thick door in the basement, which sets in motion the narrative's satisfyingly gory climax.

Shot in 1959, THE BRAIN THAT WOULDN'T DIE — titled THE HEAD THAT WOULDN'T DIE in some prints — didn't see release until 1962. I have no idea why, but I like thinking that it was simply just too damned sleazy to be unleashed onto the screen at the ass-end of the 1950's. Not only is the presentation of the story's material a bit more extreme than usual for its era, the movie also notably possesses a vibe that evokes sweat, greasiness, the choking miasma of stale cigarettes in a closed back room poker game, and the feeling that one is watching the proceedings through the haze of a three-day bender fueled by the cheapest of tequilas. The ending also delivers like few other American-made horror flicks of its vintage, and I'm intentionally not telling you what happens so you can marvel at it like I did when first seeing it at age nine. THE BRAIN THAT WOULDN'T DIE is, in my humble opinion, the perfect gene-splicing of Fifties-era exploitation and E.C. Comics-style horror, and as such it is a nasty little treasure.
Poster from the original theatrical release.

Saturday, October 26, 2013

31 DAYS OF HORROR 2013-Day 26: PEEPING TOM (1960)


For years I’d held the opinion that Alfred Hitchcock’s 1960 masterpiece PSYCHO was not only the prototype for the slasher movie genre, but also that it was the best of the many psychological horror films featuring a creepy, sexually fucked up protagonist.

Allow me to state right here and now that I was dead wrong.

A few years back, I made my way through some of the ever-growing stack of movies on DVD that threatens to bury me here in the Vault, and I sat through a film that I last watched during my “lost” (read “stoned out of my goddamned mind”) years, but I remembered it for its basic plot despite not being in any fair shape to judge. Now that I’ve seen it with a clear mind, I would like to direct any of you who have not encountered it to Michael (THE RED SHOES) Powell’s PEEPING TOM, an unjustly maligned and reviled work that met a sorry fate and languished in semi-obscurity before getting a shot in the arm from very vocal fan Martin Scorsese.

Sharing a few themes with PSYCHO — yet pre-dating it by some three months — and disturbing the living shit out of just about everyone who saw it when it came out, I have to admit that it’s a much better film than its American-made contemporary in many ways; not an easy thing for me to say, because PSYCHO was my favorite Hitchcock work for much of my life (only recently getting edged out by FRENZY, PSYCHO having lost much of its impact for me since its big shocks have now entered the pop culture lexicon, neutered by nearly fifty years of references and parody).

PEEPING TOM tells the story of Mark (Carl Boehm), a creepy focus puller at a movie studio who sidelines as a photographer for a smalltime pornography racket operating out of a local newsagent’s. 
Thanks to a highly questionable series of endlessly filmed experiments that he endured through childhood at the hands of his uncaring and twisted psychologist father, Mark is socially maladjusted (to say the very least) and obsessed with the act of “looking,” a conditioning that allows him to be able to deal with the world only when perceived through the camera’s lens. Taking a handheld camera with him wherever he goes, Mark embarks on a quest to document the human fear reaction, coldly murdering women with a blade concealed in one of the legs of his camera’s tripod, capturing their sheer terror as they are fatally penetrated by his surrogate phallus. 

Having inherited his father’s spacious house and acting as landlord, Mark occupies the upper floor, a space filled with his father’s books on his studies and a fully equipped film studio, complete with dark room and screening area. Mark spends all of his off time in his film lab, watching the footage of his victims and slowly editing it into a documentary of the darkest order. The rest of the house is rented to various boarders, including Helen (Anna Massey), a friendly girl whom Mark meets as he spies upon her twenty-first birthday party through the window.

Helen (Anna Massey) unwittingly enters the world of a madman (Carl Boehm).

The two develop a friendship that blossoms into a sweet relationship, the first normal one Mark has ever had, but Mark is very much aware his own madness and calmly accepts that it’s only a matter of time until the police catch up with him. The story dovetails into a deeply disturbing tragedy that leaves viewers drained by just how bleak, sick, and sordid it all is, all factors that lead to PEEPING TOM being shot down in flames by critics and defenders of common decency all over Britain when it was released some fifty-three years ago.


Long known for its stringent censorship of films and a general snobbish uptightness when it came to the more visceral elements of horror, the British film industry and critical body deemed PEEPING TOM to be a morally bankrupt and vile bit of business, utterly crucifying it with scathing reviews and withdrawing it from release after a mere two weeks in theaters, a backlash that virtually destroyed director Powell’s career. The British press spared no vitriol in the pillorying of the movie, as seen in these quotes from contemporary reviews:

"The sickest and filthiest film I remember seeing" 
-Isabel Quigly, The Spectator 

"I don't propose to name the players in this beastly picture" 
-C.A. Lejeune, The Observer

"sadism, sex and the exploitation of human degradation”
-Leonard Mosley, Daily Express 

"from its slumbering, mildly salacious beginning to its appallingly masochistic and depraved climax, it is wholly evil" 
-Nina Hibbin, Daily Worker

“As a shocker, it succeeds only in being nauseating for the sake of nausea. This is a sick film - sick and nasty.”
-Derek Monsey, Sunday Express

“However intriguing psychologically, the film is frankly beastly. De Sade at least veiled his relish with pretensions to being a moralist. It might have been even worse but for the discreet playing of Carl Boehme (sic) in the main role.”
-David Robinson, Financial Times

“This account of a young psychopath (Carl Boehm) who butchers girls with an ingenious killer-camera, then watches their last moments on a home screen, is not only drivel, it is crude unhealthy sensation at its worst. A sad discredit to a fine producer's reputation, - and I was appalled to find such delightful artists as Moira Shearer and Anna Massey mixed up in this sickly mess.”
-reviewer unknown, Sunday Dispatch

“Given some of the home-grown films we have had lately it's hard not to sound repetitively querulous. What-are-we-coming-to questions are apt to sound nannyish, like complaints about muddy boots, but after a film like Peeping Tom ('X' Certificate) it's a question to ask quite straight. What are we coming to, what sort of people are we in this country, to make, or see, or seem to want (so that it gets made) a film like this?”
-Isobel Quigley, The Spectator

“The only really satisfactory way to dispose of Peeping Tom would be to shovel it up and flush it swiftly down the nearest sewer. Even then the stench would remain.”
-Derek Hill, The Tribune

The reasons why the film offended so mightily during its initial run are many and have been discussed in much detail by film scholars far more qualified than Yer Bunche, but I’ll attempt to provide a short list of possible causes:

• The film makes the viewer aware of cinema as a voyeuristic act, using it to make us complicit in Mark’s crimes by allowing us to see them as they unfold, culminating in the “money shot” of his victims’ horror as seen from his P.O.V. through his camera’s viewfinder.

This approach would be appropriated to much lesser artistic effect in many of the slasher films that followed in the wake of the box office garnered by FRIDAY THE 13TH (1980), a film concerned with nothing other than depicting gory murders with a bare minimum of plot upon which to hang the carnage. Back in 1960 nothing like PEEPING TOM had ever been seen before, and its borderline-pornographic approach to the murders was considered especially distasteful.

• Unlike Norman Bates in PSYCHO, the audience knows from the beginning that Mark is an insane killer, and the entire film makes us intimate with the causes of his madness, revealing  a lonely, damaged young man who has little hope for a healthy emotional life until Helen enters his world. Mark is not a ravening madman by any means, but is quite thoughtful and even artistic, elements not usually found in such characters, and as we get to know and understand him we feel a great deal of sympathy for him. Aware as he is of his deep psychosis, Mark even considers going in for psychoanalysis thanks to Helen’s influence in drawing him out into the world at large, proving he is not beyond some kind of redemption. The idea of having sympathy for a twisted, somewhat perverted murderer was pretty much unheard of in 1960, and in a British film such a notion was unthinkable.

• PEEPING TOM wallows in voyeurism, and that aspect is ripe for the depiction of Mark’s work as a porn photographer. Working in a cheesy studio that would have made Irving Klaw laugh his ass off, Mark shoots his subjects with a clinical detachment, only moved by one model’s disfiguring harelip and the inevitability of shooting another for his lethal home movie. The sequences in the studio reek of sadness, the boredom found during photo shoots, and a palpable sleaziness that must have been quite provocative in 1960, especially the bit with famous 1950’s/1960’s nude model and pinup girl Pamela Green splayed out for Mark’s camera before she meets her off-camera demise. That scene was shot in a negligee-clad version and one featuring Green’s all-natural awesomeness, the latter version supposedly being the first female nude shot in a British film not aimed at the “naturist” market.

The stunning Pamela Green as the ill-fated Millie.

The first female nude shot in mainstream British film.

• The message of “your parents sure can fuck you up” probably wasn’t a crowd pleaser back in the days.

• The symbolic link between Mark’s camera and stiletto tripod and his warped sexuality is uber-Freudian and more than a bit obvious, and the camera as murderous cock imagery is pretty damned sleazy, no matter how utterly appropriate for the story. After seeing PEEPING TOM again, I very much doubt that I’ll ever look at my own camera the same way again.

The extent to which we are given admission to Mark’s psyche really amps up the film’s twitchy, somewhat anxious tone, whereas in PSYCHO we don’t learn much about Norman Bates’ issues until the big reveal during the last five minutes, after which we’re given a weak bit of psychoanalytical explanation that comes across as “Here’s some psychobabble to excuse the violence and twisted, pervy shit you just sat through.” That explanation felt like it was added almost as an afterthought and doesn’t give anywhere near the rich detail that made Mark a far more rounded and human character than Norman, but whatever the case PSYCHO went on to box office success and a solid place in film history as the cross-dressing granddaddy of the stalk-and-slash school of horror while PEEPING TOM remained largely unseen and unappreciated for far too long. Now available in a terrific Criterion edition, I can’t recommend this film highly enough, especially to students of the slasher genre.

PEEPING TOM proves that the lurid nature of the field’s material can yield a classic if the elements of a quality script, a talented cast, and a director who isn’t afraid to “go there” with his subject are in place, and that was certainly the case here. Definitely not a feel-good movie, do yourself the favor and rent this very sick puppy immediately. TRUST YER BUNCHE!!!

Poster for the original theatrical release.

Friday, October 25, 2013

31 DAYS OF HORROR 2013-Day 25: MOTEL HELL (1980)




I hadn't seen MOTEL HELL pretty much since it first came out (I was fifteen at the time and rather distracted by girls), so I had forgotten everything about it save that it was about a backwoods farmer (Rory Calhoun) whose celebrated homemade smoked meats are crafted from a delicious blend of pork and human flesh, with the capable aid of his burly sister, Ida (Nancy Parsons). I'm kind of glad that I remembered as little as I did because my internal movie and pop culture reference base is far more in-depth than it was in those long-ago days, and now I know the movies and tropes that the film employs and pokes fun at. Yes, I'd forgotten that MOTEL HELL is more of a very dark comedy than anything else, and as such it has virtually no plot. It instead focuses on Farmer Vincent's creative methods of abducting passersby who will be planted up to their necks in his secret garden with their vocal chords slit, fattened up, and processed into usable meat for smoking. 

"It takes all kinds of critters to make Farmer Vincent's fritters." And how!

Yeah, there a sub-plot in which Farmer Vincent spares the life of one of his victims, a cute blonde named Terry (Nina Axelrod), grooming her to become his bride and the next member of his smoked meat cottage industry and the jealousy that spawns in Ida, but that's all very much beside the point when stacked up against the idea of a deranged farmer turning the eager local populace into unwitting cannibalistic gluttons.

Parodying the vibe of such "country terror" flicks 2000 MANIACS, DELIVERANCE (to some small degree), and of course THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE, MOTEL HELL comes off like an episode of GREEN ACRES as written by Charles Addams. It's not at all scary, features minimal gore, and is downright goofy, so don't go into it expecting anything even resembling a serious or gruesome shocker. However, the imagery of a chainsaw-wielding Farmer Vincent decked out in flannel shirt, overalls, and a huge, staring pig mask is truly the stuff of nightmares.











And though rated R, the film is light on gore, has only moderate profanity, and a smattering of bare tits. In fact, it's relatively innocuous enough to be suitable for kids ten and up, so give the kiddies a treat and let MOTEL HELL serve as their introduction to cannibalism as a common horror element.

Poster from the original theatrical release.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

31 DAYS OF HORROR 2013-Day 24: THRILLER "MR. GEORGE" (1961)


Sometime around 1900, a sweet little girl named Priscilla (Gina Gillespie) inherits a fortune and her three adult guardians plot to kill her so they'll be next in line for the cash. The heartless trio, led by the cold-as-stone Aunt Edna (Virginia Gregg), could not possibly care less for poor Priscilla and can't wait to send her to join her recently-deceased mother, so it's a damned good thing that she's got a friend like Mr. George. It should be stressed that Priscilla is very young and apparently rather sheltered, so she does not yet grasp the concept of death, which is probably a good thing since Mr. George is the unseen ghost of an adored close friend of her dead mom. (It is alluded to that Mr. George may have been Priscilla's father out of wedlock, which was pretty scandalous for the story's era.) With Priscilla's imminent "accidental" death being actively orchestrated by three foul grownups, Mr. George moves to protect the child and it's quite clear that he has zero mercy for those who would do the little girl harm...


















Wee Priscilla (Gina Gillespie), who doesn't grasp the concept of death, visits the grave of her dear, departed friend, Mr. George, and wishes he'd come back to live with her. Smart move, kid!

Based on a WEIRD TALES story by August Derleth (who wrote it under the pseudonym of Stephen Grendon), this installment of the legendary anthology series THRILLER (1960-1962) doesn't deliver the kind of outright scares the series became famous for, but I include it here for a couple of very good reasons. Remember when you were still just a very little child and your doting elders told you scary stories about kids who ran afoul of wicked step-parents, monsters, and other dire forces that would visit all manner of awfulness upon the story's kid protagonists with whom you identified because you were also a small, relatively helpless entity in a big world full of equally big dangers? I can't speak for you, but I certainly remember those stories and I always feared for the protagonists' well-being, so I welcomed whatever outside help they could get, and MR. GEORGE brought me right back to those long ago days of my childhood. And while there are many stories of children being aided by magical/supernatural friends and helpers, I particularly like how the particulars of this ghost story allow for the spook in question to outright kill Priscilla's would-be murderers and allow the audience to not only be unafraid of Mr. George, but also to flat-out root for him. Though unseen (but soothingly voiced by Les Tremayne), he looks out for the lonely little girl with diligence and serves as her invisible playmate (which only makes her appear insane to her guardians), plus, when he dispatches the deserving blackguards, especially the foul Aunt Edna, he always makes sure his young charge is not present to witness anything gruesome. Who wouldn't love a shade of such fine moral calibre?






Aunt Edna (Virginia Gregg) strings a tripwire at the top of the stairs, in hope of sending her niece to an untimely death. Do you think Mr. George is going to put up with that kind of shit? Say it with me: Oh, HELL no.

MR. GEORGE is immeasurably more genteel than the kind of horror fare that I usually like, especially considering that I am not a fan of ghost stories in general, but this quiet little creeper charms on a kid's story level — though notably edgier than one would expect for a ghost story involving a child on TV from over half a century ago — and I recommend it as a primer entry for any little ones you know who may show a budding interest in horror. Be their cool elder and sit your little darlings down to spend some time with Priscilla and Mr. George. They'll be glad that you did.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

31 DAYS OF HORROR 2013-Day 23: CARRIE (2013)


In the current age of needless remakes, it was inevitable that Hollywood would return to the horror well that is Stephen King’s CARRIE (which was already done back in 2002 as a made-for-TV move and possible series pilot, but the less said of that the better) and as remakes go, the 2013 iteration is not bad at all. That said, it doesn’t hold the same primal gravitas and miserable power that Brian DePalma’s 1976 classic version possesses, and that’s partly due to the original’s plot particulars having crossed over into the shared pop cultural consciousness, so it’s pretty much impossible to approach this story without already knowing exactly what it’s about and where it’s going sight unseen. It’s also a story that requires no embellishment in order to make it relatable to a contemporary audience of the twenty-teens. The true power and indelibly resonant aspect of the heart-wrenching tragedy of Carrie White lies in it being one of the handful of classic horror stories that explores a specifically female part of the human experience — a young girl’s traumatic first experience with her menstrual cycle, coupled with the crueler-than-cruel actions of some of her peers, plus the abuses she suffers at the hands of her mentally ill religious fanatic of a mother — and the honesty with which it builds to its apocalyptic climax simultaneously touches and deeply saddens its audience. No amount of flashy special effects and can augment what is already very strong meat, so why bother trying to one-up perfection?

I’ve previously written at length on the original CARRIE, so all I really need to say about the plot of the 2013 version is that it tells basically the same story, only with a couple of bits thrown in that were of minor importance in the novel and a couple of changes in the fates of some of the characters. Carrie’s still a shy, tormented outcast (well-played by Chloe Grace Moretz) who was not informed of the facts about female adolescence and suffers her first period in her high school’s girls’ locker room, much to the sadistic amusement of a gaggle of her "mean girl" peers — one of the all-time most abusive and humiliating sequences in all of fiction, now made worse with the addition of cell phone video and internet sharing — and that incident unleashes her latent telekinetic powers, which are seen to full apocalyptic effect during the narrative’s famous senior prom climax, so if you’ve seen the 1976 version, you’ve pretty much already seen the new one.

The major draw this time around is Moretz as Carrie, and I’m glad to say that she delivers the tortured girl’s timidity and loneliness in spades. When word of this remake first got out and her name was attached to the project, I balked because Moretz is simply far too pretty for the role. (The same can be said of Sissy Spacek in the original, but she was also kind of weirdly spooky-looking, an aspect that Moretz does not exude.) But Moretz overcomes the possible stumbling block of her appealing features with a performance that brings the character’s emotional frailty and isolation to the fore, with her eyes perpetually downcast, save for when she makes direct eye contact, at which point she’s like a terrified deer caught in the headlights. Julianne Moore is also quite good as Carrie’s batshit-insane religious fanatic mom, playing the role in a distinctly de-glammed manner that belies her considerable ginger beauty.

One element that works in the film’s favor is that all of the high school-aged characters look the right age, as opposed to the original, where the youngest of the high school kids looked to be somewhere in their early-to-mid-twenties. That helps sell the mishegoss on a level believable of hormonally driven teens, but not half as plausible when enacted by people like the 1976 version’s William Katt. (Nancy Allen and John Travolta were exceptions by virtue of both being outstanding, utterly hateful bad guys.) The current version’s Chris Hargensen works quite well as played by Portia Doubleday, largely because she looks the character’s age, and is therefore totally believable as a spoiled, sadistic cunt of the worst order, which only makes us long to witness her fate on the receiving end of Carrie’s vengeful wrath.

And while we’re on the subject of Carrie’s powers and completely understandable wrath, the way her telekinetic abilities are depicted in the new film seems to be influenced by the wave of popular superhero movies of the past fifteen years or so. This time around, Carrie puts in a bit of practice with her power once she’s aware of it, and when she finally reaches her breaking point at the prom, her control of her TK is nothing short of masterful. It’s very impressive, but that level of Jean Grey-style mastery detracts from the from-the-gut primal anger witnessed in both the source novel and DePalma’s classic version. It’s akin to a kung fu movie in which a novice has just begun to understand and be able to implement some serious martial techniques, and then suddenly engages in combat with the acumen of a master. In short, it was cool to look at but that instinct-driven punch was gone in favor of Yoda-esque hand gestures and concentration.

Carrie’s explosive meltdown after the infamous prom night anointing with a bucket of pig’s blood is indeed spectacular, but it’s also marred by the aforementioned Yoda-style flourishes, along with Carrie levitating herself so that she looks like a spectre covered in the red goop one uses to make candy apples. In the previous tellings of the story, Carrie’s fury was such that not even the gym teacher who came to her aid throughout the story survived her rampage, but the new version allows Ms. Desjardin (Judy Greer) to live to tell the tale. I’m of a divided mind on that one; no, Desjardin did not deserve to be bulldozed by the bludgeon of Carrie’s TK retribution, but her death served to point up just how broken and out of control Carrie was when she finally snapped, so Desjardin being spared further dilutes the narrative’s vitriol.

Sue Snell (Gabriella Wilde), the repentant girl who convinces her boyfriend to take Carrie to the prom, turns up pregnant at the end and finds Carrie after the devastation of the school, cradling her now-dead loony mom in her arms. Carrie senses Sue’s pregnancy and informs her previously unaware classmate that she’s carrying a girl. Carrie spares Sue’s life, telekinetically booting her from the house as she collapses it on top of herself and her dead mom, and for the life of me I couldn’t figure out why the pregnancy angle was included. It was only after the credits rolled that I considered it might be a way of setting up a possible sequel, with Carrie maybe having somehow transferred her spirit and power into Sue’s gestating daughter. It’s a stretch, but I’ve seen far more ludicrous springboards from which sequels have been generated.

The bottom line on the 2013 CARRIE is that while it’s not a bad movie by any means, it’s done in by its very superfluousness, and it reads as exactly what I expected from a remake of this particular story, namely CARRIE for the HIGH SCHOOL MUSICAL generation. It’s worth a look when it hits cable or Netflix, but I say why go with a lesser imitation when the superb original can still be had with ease?

(Oh, and they wisely didn't copy DePalma's famous shock ending, which the first FRIDAY THE 13th already ripped off anyway.)